I haven’t posted anything in a while, so I thought I’d post a paper I wrote for my music class. It’s not really particularly interesting, and I wrote it in about 25 minutes (it’s only two pages double spaced) but oh well.
The assignment was to write about how the experience of a particular song can be altered by other experiences.
Plato once hypothesized that to put a message into a medium was to distort it. He argued that when the true “message” was brought down from an idea into something else (e.g. a painting, a book, or music), it was fundamentally changed. As it went from one medium to the next, it only changed further. While its meaning was derivative of the original, the distortion came from the interpretation applied onto it by others.
Such is the case for music: it may mean something to one person and something completely different to another. When I first heard the song “Us Against the World” on Coldplay’s album “Mylo Xyloto”, I enjoyed it. I was soothed by the harmonizing vocals over the soft acoustic guitars, with the occasional piano note to accompany them. The lyrics didn’t really mean anything to me. While I was sure that Chris Martin (the songwriter) put a lot of thought and work into them, they were simply something that carried the melody as it drifted by in the background. I didn’t think. I just listened.
Then, as I do with every album I love, I played the songs over and over again. I would play them when doing homework, when on the plane, when vacuuming, etc. These physical experiences didn’t change the song for me, but the song was always running in the background. On one day, however, that changed.
On December 18th, 2011, Keesha passed away. Keesha was my dog; she had been with me since I was five years old. She was there to be with me when I was sad, there to lick me when I was happy, there to steal my birthday cake, and there to listen to what I had to say. She was probably the most important thing in my life. And she was gone.
I remember finding out. I was at a debate tournament, and no one was there to talk to. I just had my iPod, so I walked over to a bench, sat down, and pressed play. The first song to play was “Us Against the World”.
Suddenly, Martin’s lyrics changed. “Like a river to a raindrop, I lost a friend”. “Bring back the water, let your ships roll in”.
“Through chaos as it swirls, it’s us against the world”.
I cried quietly to myself. The words’ meanings hadn’t changed: what was being sung had been sung before, but they meant something completely different to me. I remembered every happy moment I had had with my dog. I remembered blaming the scratches on the piano on her, I remembered sleeping on her when I was alone at home; I remembered everything.
I think that’s what Plato meant. What was written didn’t really change, but my own experience altered the song’s meaning forever. To this day, I cannot hear that song without thinking of my dog. I listen to it, and the moment the first guitar chord begins to ring out in my ears, I go back to that moment where I was sitting on the bench.
This process is irreversible: I can never hear this song a different way. But I like it. It means something to me, and I think that’s the most powerful effect a work of art can have. It is not the message the artist necessarily intended that matters, but rather the message that is created through the harmony of the minds of the listener and the writer that is truly amazing.